My post about depression has been rewritten and organized better, presenting both the popular misconceptions of depression as well as the realities of the illness. Click and read on for greater understanding, whether you’re a depression sufferer, survivor, or supportive friend/family member.
Recently, I read an informative article on Forbes.com called “Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid.” I did like the points it made about breaking out of fear and learning how to be patient…but I have to admit, part of the article irked me, too. According to this article, I am mentally weak in at least 10 different ways, and have been since childhood. Coincidentally, I have also suffered multiple lapses of depression and anxiety attacks since at least the age of 8.
Striving toward the goals on this list of mental strengths IS a task worth doing; however, this article casts some forms of “mental weakness” as a completely controllable, chosen way of life. I know better.
What Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, According to This Article
- Waste time feeling sorry for themselves
- Give away their power
- Shy away from change
- Waste energy on things they can’t control
- Worry about pleasing others
- Fear taking calculated risks
- Dwell on the past
- Make the same mistakes over and over
- Resent other people’s success
- Give up after failure
- Fear alone time
- Feel the world owes them anything
- Expect immediate results
My Big Problems with This List
Most of these points are valid, and can be adopted by changing your perspective and outlook to match; that’s perfectly fine. Unfortunately, there are a few points on this list that people may not be enduring by choice; I am speaking primarily of depression and anxiety. This article, I feel, goes a little too close to shaming/blaming people who have depressed or anxious thought patterns, such as the following:
- “Mentally strong people don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves.” Unfortunately, when you’re depressed, your life is one big cesspool of “sorry.” Life feels pointless; you find yourself pondering the question “Why am I even here? Why do I exist? Everyone would be better off if I just died so I wasn’t taking up space.” And when depression has argued you into a logical corner like this, sometimes you have to spend half an hour mentally talking yourself into taking a shower, let alone getting out of the house and being “useful.” It’s very difficult NOT to feel sorry for yourself when you see other people being normal and having a good life, and you feel like your ability to live is broken.
- “Mentally strong people don’t give away their power.” When you’re depressed or anxious, you don’t HAVE any power anymore–that’s the whole problem. These mental conditions encroach on you like a garbage compactor, slowly compressing your thoughts until they tangle and crunch in on themselves. Other people’s opinions simply pile in on top of these already-twisted thoughts, adding more noise and more confusion to the mess of your life. And God help you if others are judging you harshly for going through this mess, as if you CHOSE this punishing way of life, as if you “could change if you really wanted to.” How INSULTING, and utterly unhelpful–comments like that just make the thought compactor move faster, and you’re even more powerless to change it.
- “Mentally strong people don’t waste energy on things they can’t control.” Yeah, except anxiety takes that choice away from you, completely. It doesn’t matter if what you’re anxious about is in your control or not–your brain is going to lock on to it and hang on like a hermit crab. The song of worry plays on and on, endlessly, drowning out most other thoughts, diminishing your appetite, and keeping sleep just barely at bay; it’s like trying to walk against a strong wind.
- “Mentally strong people don’t dwell on the past.” Fine and dandy, except when it’s 4 am and your brain has decided to play you a never-ending newsreel of all the horrible things you’ve done or thought about in your life. Depression brings up guilt, which in turn regurgitates your past–except that these memories always cast you as the villain, the outcast, the one who should be hated or destroyed for all the failures and mistakes, all the hurt you’ve caused. Mentally “strong” folks, how would you deal with this, when your own brain turns against you? When you’re depressed, you are mentally drowning in this, every moment, and you can’t just “think positive” or “quit thinking about the past” to fix it.
- “Mentally strong people don’t give up after failure.” Failure causes a certain degree of anxiety–that’s a given for just about anyone. In normal folks, that anxiety can propel them to greater achievement later. But in folks like me, who already hate and fear failure as if it means certain death, failure binds up our brains in sticky spiderwebs of anxiety, and depression plays the role of the approaching spider. A failure is one more way you’re weak; it’s one more thing to be guilty about, and depression feeds on guilt as spiders feed on bugs, sapping the will to try again–why bother, when you’re just going to fail again and prove what a waste of space you are?
- “Mentally strong people don’t fear alone time.” Alone time? Oh, you mean “Incessant Internal Guilt-Trip” time. Or maybe you meant “Wonder-What-Everyone-Else-Is-Doing-Without-Me” time. Perhaps even “Reasons-I-Should-Kill-Myself” time. My alone time, historically speaking, has been full of this kind of overwhelming negativity, and I’m not the only one to experience it this way–depression wraps your brain in this kind of foggy thinking. Even when you are with others, you feel pretty alone mentally, and when you are alone in reality, the negative feelings double in size, because you don’t have other people helping to drown it all out. Every thought process takes a negative turn whether you want it to or not–it’s like they’re all on railroads headed toward the pit.
My Point: “Mental Strength” May Require Professional Help for Some Folks
If you find yourself able to turn your thoughts around by reading helpful/inspiring articles, then that’s awesome. But for people like me who suffer clinical depression and/or anxiety, some of these points may just be too tough to tackle on our own. I think the Forbes article ignores that, as if all people can just fix these skewed mental mindsets on their own. (I tried fixing my depression on my own, and I ended up worse off than before.)
Think of it this way: we would not ask a cancer patient to administer his or her own chemotherapy, nor we would expect a person to perform his or her own surgery in the hospital. Why, then, does society believe that depressed or anxious people can somehow heal themselves–or that they chose to be sick in the first place? Mental strength is a wonderful goal, but for some, it may require more than just a self-help book to achieve. It may require various forms of therapy, friend/family support, medications, etc. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Depression isn’t something our society talks about very much. I don’t mean our “global” society–certainly in the celebrity world, we’ve heard quite a bit about depression over the last few decades. But in our individual societies, our towns, cities, apartment buildings, family units, groups of friends, we do not discuss depression very much. When it strikes our friends, or even our own family members, we are often the very last to know that there was even a problem to begin with.
It’s sad that depression just doesn’t get talked about, not even with family. It’s somehow a shameful thing, or something we are “meant” to endure alone, not something to share…somehow, it’s almost too painful and personal to share. On the rare occasions when I have brought up the subject of depression, most people brush it aside–they either don’t want to talk about it (“I don’t like discussing somebody’s emotional dirty laundry”) or they disregard it as a real illness (“Well, if they’d go back to church/get a job/get out of their relationship/get in a relationship, they’d get out of it”).
In this article, I seek to dispel some common misconceptions as well as offer some definitions of what depression does to a person.
Depression is not just being “sad.”
What most non-depression sufferers do not understand is that depression is not just “feeling sad,” but feeling NOTHING, as Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half describes in her two posts on surviving her own depression. Things you used to love, you could care less about now. Life itself seems pointless, and enjoyment seems beyond the scope of your mind.
For instance, when I suffered my last major attack of depression in 2008-2009, I watched as all my creative processes slipped away into the mist–first, my web designing, then my poetry, then my musical composing, and finally my singing. I didn’t just feel sad; I felt as if nothing was enjoyable anymore, and I suddenly had no mental energy left to do anything anymore.
Depression is not mere laziness or “being emo.”
It angers me when somebody implies that depressed people are just “being lazy.” Laziness isn’t even part of it–you WANT to get up, you WANT to do things, but the minute you try to climb out of the bed, the horrible nothingness crushes in on you again, leaving you breathless, absolutely unable to fight the slow encroachment of despair. Suddenly, everything takes so much darn effort; just going to the store and facing the stares of people is unbearable, and just the thought of trying to talk to somebody becomes a terror-inducing idea.
As for being “emo,” the emo and goth cultures simply romanticize depression as sadness, and make a fantasy out of suicide; I dealt with the grisly realities of depression and suicide when I drove down the road every day after teaching and thought about driving straight into a telephone pole, just to end the monotony that my life had become. That wasn’t normal for me–I was nonviolent and shuddered to think about death, and yet I was nearly overcome with the need to escape my life.
Depression eats your identity and your life.
Each time I suffered depression, especially the last time, I felt hollowed out…and yet, to all the rest of my friends and family, I was normal. They could not see what I felt inside, and since I felt unable to talk to anybody about it (including God–it was like I had forgotten how to pray!), I endured most of it alone. Having lost the ability to feel and think as normal, having lost the will to be creative, my inner self seemed like just a shell of my previous personality, and I simply kept up the facade to keep others from asking questions and giving me advice I couldn’t even begin to follow.
My life’s normal rhythms, too, seemed lost in a void. During the last attack of depression, I often came home from student teaching, thunked my books and papers on the desk, stripped off my shoes, and landed in the bed almost fully clothed, to sleep for nearly 6 hours. Then I’d be up in the middle of the night frantically trying to grade papers and crying too much for me to even focus on the task. Again, nobody else saw this; I tried to hide this change in routine even from myself. Depression overrode who I was for those endless months, leaving me with little energy, lots of irritability and impatience, and an overwhelming combination of boredom and sorrow.
Depression manifests in different forms.
My experience of depression is not uncommon, but there can be other symptoms. Other depressed and formerly depressed people reported loss of interest in hygiene, hoarding trash items, not going out in public anymore, and avoiding social contact, as well as trying to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Some depressed people don’t think about suicide all the time, but it can happen with any manifestation.
For non-sufferers, realize that this illness changes a person, and the depressed person needs your compassion and understanding. Depression attacks every part of you, body, mind, and soul, but sometimes the attacks are a little more visible than other times. People who seem wonderfully well-adjusted in public may lock themselves away at night and weep about formless problems that make no sense.
Depression can be fixed.
The thing that really helps with depression are good friends and family who keep asking after you, who keep trying to contact you regardless. They can help you remember what’s good about life, as my friends and family did for me.
I was incredibly lucky to not only have a supportive immediate family, but a wonderful boyfriend who stood by me, loving me regardless of the changes in my personality during that time. That, plus a timely divine intervention, saved me. (I literally was sitting on the end of my bed staring at the stacks and stacks of papers I had to grade, the stacks and stacks of assignments I had to complete for my graduate school courses, and I found myself thinking, “I might as well kill myself–I’ll never get them all done.” Then, a little thought I couldn’t identify as mine popped into my head: “Why do you want to kill yourself over pieces of paper?” Up until then, I thought the “still, small voice of God” was just a poetic metaphor. I have since experienced it as a real phenomenon, and it snapped me out of my desperation just enough to begin to heal.)
For other depressed people, antidepressants work wonders and keep them stable long enough for them to recreate a life for themselves. I was desperately trying to avoid having to “take a pill every day for the rest of my life to stay happy,” and for now, I’ve managed it, but that doesn’t mean I won’t need one in the future. Depression can sometimes recur in cycles, but it is manageable if you get help (or have great friends and family who help you get help).
A Few Final Thoughts
One reason I decided to write this post is because I read an eye-opening book called The Noonday Demon, which is all about depression, its effects on people, its history and social knowledge, etc. Reading about others’ experiences with depression has helped me recognize more symptoms within myself and others. Though it’s a jarring, poignant read, I believe this book is very useful in learning how to empathize with depression survivors.
By sharing my personal experiences of depression, I hope I’ve taken away some of the “dirty laundry” characterization of the illness. I was able to climb out of my depression without the use of antidepressants, thankfully, but there are an unfortunate number of people who cannot climb out without them. Depression comes in all shapes and sizes, all severities, and affects anyone. It strikes sometimes out of nowhere. And surviving it does not mean you’re any stronger than someone who is still suffering–it just means you’re lucky.